Book Review: Unsung Hero of Gettysburg: The Story of Union General David McMurtrie Gregg

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by Edward G. Longacre

Lincoln: Potomac Nebraska, 2021. Pp. xx, 316+. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1640124292

A Forgotten Union Cavalryman

David McMurtrie Gregg should be considered one of the best Union cavalry generals of the American Civil War, but is one of the most neglected officers, despite his significant contributions to the ultimate Union victory. His greatest moment took place on July 3, 1863, during the battle of Gettysburg, when he helped keep J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry from reaching the rear of the Army of the Potomac just as “Pickett’s Charge” was taking place. Despite this, Gregg has failed to receive any attention or acclaim from historians. In this book, Longacre argues that Gregg deserved such credit.

Longacre covers David Gregg’s life and career in twelve chapters. He opens with Gregg’s background from a distinguished family that served in the seventeenth century English civil war and the U.S. Congress, and early life. There follow ten chapters that concentrate on his time at West Point, service primarily in the West against Indians and Mormons, and particularly his experiences during the Civil War. While Longacre analyzes Gregg’s generalship on July 1st through 3rd of 1863, this reviewer was left wanting more than just 10 pages on the battle of Gettysburg out of 260 pages. The final chapter examines why this man of proven skill and unimpeachable character left the Army very early in 1865, then attempted to return to duty in 1868. Longacre continues Gregg’s story into the postwar era, in the diplomatic service, local politics, and particularly the Grand Army of the Republic and historic preservation, concluding with some observations about the man by his former comrades-in-arms.

Longacre suggests several reasons why Gregg did not receive the acclaim he deserved for his actions at Gettysburg, including:

  •       Absence from duty on July 4th and 9th and a ten day leave from August 11th, perhaps due to health.
  •       Some letters to Gregg from the army’s cavalry commander, George Pleasanton, critical of army commander  George Meade, which were published by The New York Herald on August 7, 1863.
  •       Gregg’s failure to   properly report the results of an ordered reconnaissance on October 11, 1863, which left the army’s right flank exposed for eight hours, which Andrew A. Humphrey, Meade’s chief-of- staff considered culpable negligence, an inexcusable error that should have resulted in Gregg’s arrest and court martial.

Longacre has mined many previously untapped repositories, drawing upon documents and personal papers previously unused.

Well-written, Unsung Hero of Gettysburg is an interesting account of a neglected subject, and Longacre has included many anecdotes (with a particularly amusing one about Lincoln) that offer insights into the makeup of the man. He argues that the tragic loss of his mother and brothers in his youth made Gregg a very a private person, quiet, self-controlled, neither flamboyant nor interested in working with the press to further his career. This undoubtedly affected the neglect that has attached to his life.

Additionally, Longacre discusses some possible reasons for the general’s premature resignation. He suggests that a combination of atrocities committed against his troops by Confederate civilians in North Carolina, financial strain, and his family’s fears for his life after a bullet pierced his hat in December 1864, all played a role.

Unsung Hero of Gettysburg stands as the ground-breaking treatment on David Gregg that offers students a moving, readable, and definitive biography.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews include The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War, Civil War Places, The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863, America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War, The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home Freedom, and Nation, A Republic in the Ranks, An Environmental History of the Civil War, Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America, Arguing until Doomsday, Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War, “The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg. A History and Walking Tour, Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign, Defending the Arteries of Rebellion, A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era, Unlike Anything That Ever Floated, Meade at Gettysburg, A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, Grant's Left Hook, The Winter that Won the War: The Winter Encampment at Valley Forge, 1777-1778, Gettysburg Rebels, The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, and From Arlington to Appomattox: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War, Day by Day, 1861-1865.

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Note: Unsung Hero of Gettysburg is also available in several e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

https://www.nymas2.org/

Reviewer: David Marshall   


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